I first came across weeder women in 2006 – they were working in the gardens of the Chiswick manor of Sutton Court in the 1690s and early 1700s. In the accounts kept by Lord Fauconberg’s steward they were paid six pence a day. The women were rarely named, as payment was usually made within the reimbursement of a lump sum of expenses to the head gardener. Between the beginning of the account book and Lord Fauconberg’s death at the end of 1700 substantial sums were spent on  creating spectacular gardens, on construction, sculpture, an orangery, a lake and planting.  It appears there was little for a weeder woman to do.

In 1691/2  the sum  of £2.17s.6d was spent against the entry ‘gardeners and weeders’ though work in the gardens totalled more than £55 that year. After 1700, the widowed Countess of Fauconberg was overseeing Sutton Court and weeder women often appear in the accounts, as do purchases of her personal items. So weeders could have been employed before, for example if she had her own flower garden, but the cost may not have been recorded by her husband’s steward.

During 1701/2 the three gardeners’ wages came to £16.10s.0d and the weeder woman received £1.13s.8d. In 1702/3 a single weeder woman is again mentioned, who received £4.12s.9d; at 6 pence a day that represents 182 and a half days’work . During 1703/4 an unnamed weeder woman was paid £2.11s.6d for 103 days’ work while in both 1703/4 and 1704/5 Goody Latham did 70 days weeding for £1.15s.0d. Widow Graunt’s 6 weeks and 3 days of weeding earned her 19 shillings and 9 pence in 1704/5. So far I have been unable to trace personal information about either of these women.

There was a long tradition of employing women to do this work which straddled the boundary between cheap labour and skilled work. It involved continuous bending and carrying the green arisings away from the beds, but the weeder woman also brought the expertise that ensured she pulled out weeds rather than prized and expensive plants.

Switzer, 1733

William Lawson’s Country Housewife’s Garden (1618) advised that garden beds should not be wider than 5 feet so that the weeder women need not tread on the earth. Other gardening books such as Stephen Switzer’s Practical Husbandman and Planter (1733) emphasised the need to create wide paths between beds for ease of access. Switzer also recommended using the weeder women and boys to pick off and destroy snails every morning. In 1753 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote about her Italian garden: ‘I generally rise at 6 and as soon as I have breakfasted put myselfe at the head of my Weeder Women and work with them until 9’.

Susanna, Lady Lort, a wealthy widow, lived in a mansion with spectacular gardens in Turnham Green. She was ailing when she made her will (TNA PROB 11/515/256) on 16 May 1710 for it was proved on 26 May. Having made sure she sorted out a series of complex family bequests in her will, she left money for the Chiswick Charity School and to the poor in the Parish of St James’s Westminster where she was buried. Then she listed her servants. Amongst them was Widow Woodman ‘who  weeds my garden’ to whom she left twenty shillings (the equivalent of 40 days’ work), perhaps a measure of the value she placed upon the widow’s skill.

a weeder woman in gardens Lady Lort had once owned

The biography of this single weeder woman throws a some light on the importance of such modest income for a family. Widow Woodman was born Esther Durham. She received a bequest from her cousin, Robert Durham, a chandler of Acton, (MS 9172/84, will no 105, LMA) in 1693. In his will he described her as ‘Hesther Durham of Turnham Green’ and left her his trunk ‘as a token of his love’. Everything else he owned was to go to his wife Anne, his executor, who lived on until 1697. Esther married Henry Woodman, husbandman of Chiswick, at St Martin’s in the Fields in 1694. When her husband died in July 1701 she had three small sons, William born in 1696, Henry born 1698 and John in 1699, and she was pregnant with their daughter, Mary, who was born in September 1701.

By the time John was baptised Henry was being described as a gardener, but it has not proved possible to locate his garden ground. Esther probably needed to keep the business going despite her widowhood and may well have had employees, or at least seasonal workers, to assist her. When her children were older they probably worked in the gardens as did the offspring of so many nursery gardeners. Perhaps her son Henry was apprenticed to another gardener. Certainly he was skilled enough to be employed by the important nurseryman, Nicholas Parker of Strand on the Green, with whom he could previously have served his apprenticeship. In his will Parker stated that Woodman lived with him and he bequeathed him land in 1726. This enabled Henry to marry Eleanor Compton, another of Parker’s heirs, in 1728. She was the daughter of another Chiswick nursery gardening family and together they became a formidable partnership in the horticultural business.

Did Esther Woodman sustain a family nursery business? By the time of Lady Lort’s will in 1710, she might have been earning a little extra cash from weeding. Or had the nursery failed, leaving her to eke out a living working as a weeder for several landowners? In the early 1720s she was paying rates to the parish on a small house valued at £3 in Turnham Green (for comparison, Hogarth’s House, then only two rooms wide, was valued at £10). Esther lived until March 1724 but left no will; her son John appears to have taken on her £3 cottage and he lived until 1730. By that date the Strand on the Green property owned by Henry and Eleanor Woodman (bequeathed by Nicholas Parker) was valued at £45.